Rescuers save drowning driver in Killona

UV filled with Mardi Gras revelers flips into canal

Emily Charles, 21, had begun to drive herself and five longtime friends from a Luling hotel to Southern California on Feb. 18 when she rear-ended a vehicle and lost control of her SUV at the intersection of Louisiana highways 3127 and 3142 near Dow Chemical Co. in Killona. Charles hit the brakes, but could not avoid clipping the back of the car.
“After that, I don’t even know what happened. We must have flipped,” Charles said.

Charles’ 2007 Honda CRV landed upside down in knee-deep water in a ditch, her seat belt trapping her in the sinking vehicle. As fellow passengers forced their way out of the SUV, they realized two friends were still trapped inside—Charles and Shanti Biondolillo, 21, who had been sitting in the cargo area in back.

“I was breathing in water, I was slipping in and out of consciousness,” Charles said of laying upside down in the overturned SUV.

“It was crazy, confusing and scary—I was yelling because I couldn’t find [Charles],” Michael Caffey said.

Caffey attempted to break a window on the vehicle to help Charles, ultimately fracturing his pinky finger. Luckily, travel mate Joe Barille had packed a specialized seat belt cutting and window-breaking tool in his bag, which he was able to retrieve from the trunk.

“It’s funny, we had been talking about it at the start of the trip like ‘I have this just in case,’” said group member Anthony Eide.

The rescue effort was quickly aided by a member of the first response team at Dow’s chemical plant nearby, as well as a passing motorist who went as far as to go into the water to help Charles. The passing motorist also helped Biondolillo by smashing the rear window of the vehicle and getting her out.

“We’ve just been calling him flannel guy. We didn’t get his name and I feel so bad,” Caffey said of the helpful stranger. “I don’t know where he went…he just came and went.”

Charles had inhaled so much water toward the end of the ordeal that she had to be awakened and coached out of the vehicle after the seatbelt had been successfully cut.Following the crash, the group’s clothing was soaked in gasoline and bayou water, and the vehicle itself was totaled. To help the six friends, Catholic Charities, Red Cross and St. Charles Parish Hospital workers got together extra clothing and washed the belongings that were recovered.

“This isn’t just a hospital, it’s like, the best hospital ever,” Caffey said.

“Nowhere back home would’ve treated us this way,” Charles added. “It could’ve been a thousand times worse if they had been cold or uninviting.”

On the day of their release, the six friends sat in the same hospital room wearing gowns. Charles said she was held for additional time due to the risk that something could happen with her heart or lungs within eight hours following the accident. Caffey said the hospital worked with them to keep the lifelong friends in the same room.

With the car totaled, the group will turn to family members to piece together a way back to the Burbank area where most live.

Biondolillo said her stepmother works for a chauffeur company and was able to arrange for transportation to the impounded vehicle. Once there, the group hopes to find their IDs, after which family can help them purchase plane tickets home. If they cannot find the IDs, Charles said, they need to purchase bus tickets home.

Eide said that the Red Cross and Catholic Charities would help them negotiate with Greyhound for a reduced rate.The friends say they are lucky that the accident occurred at the end of their trip, allowing them to enjoy Mardi Gras without the cloud of tragedy. After a warm reception from St. Charles and New Orleans, the group agreed that it would not rule out a return trip.

“Maybe next year we’ll come back,” Charles laughed. “But maybe we’ll take a plane or a bus.”

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